Nourished by cool river water, palm trees and fields full of crops fringe each side of the Nile, twin green bands marking its course as it sweeps north to meet the Mediterranean. Beyond these fertile banks lies nothing but mile upon mile of desert. here, in simple imagery, is proof of a saying that’s 5000 years old: egypt is the gift of the Nile. Without the river, egypt simply wouldn’t exist. No wonder the Ancient egyptians built their homes, temples, tombs and monuments as close as they could to its life-giving waters. This is great news for modern travellers because it means the egyptians unwittingly created one of the world’s best river cruises. Base yourself on the Nile and most of the best sights are just a short coach ride – or even walk – away. it’s no surprise that people have been mesmerised by egypt’s ancient monuments for many centuries, and the country is well used to foreign visitors. egyptmania ignited in europe particularly in the late 19th century and on into the 20th century, as european archaeologists unearthed more tombs and glittering artefacts, culminating in 1922 with howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of a young pharaoh called Tutankhamen.
Decades later, it was the image of his famous mask of gold – striped headdress inlaid with semi-precious stones with a shimmering cobra on the crown above the dark, mesmerising eyes of the king – that captured my interest and made me want to visit egypt. i wanted to see it all: temples carved with mysterious hieroglyphs and images of warrior pharaohs, beautiful goddesses and animal-headed gods, tombs with wall paintings thousands of years old yet still vivid in colour; museums stuffed with magnificent statues, thrones and golden jewellery. I’ve visited many times now, yet still learn something new every time. Ancient egypt was founded around 3150 BC by King Menes when upper and lower egypt were united. A series of dynasties ruled for the next three millennia, before foreign invaders – Greek, roman, Arab, British – arrived and made their own cultural mark. The egyptians built temples, but interlopers such as Alexander the Great sought to quell unrest and appease citizens by also erecting monuments in honour of the ancient civilisation’s gods and goddesses, so there’s a surprise – you could argue that some of the country’s temples aren’t egyptian at all.
If you want to see the best temples, a classic seven-night Nile cruise between the two cities of Luxor and Aswan is the way to go. River cruisers have become part of the landscape, and there are hundreds to choose from, but pick an exceptional vessel such as the luxurious SS Misr, and the experience will be considerably enhanced. All the most incredible sights are included on a cruise, with the twin temples of Abu Simbel as an optional excursion – but you’d be mad to miss them. For me, the Great Temple, featuring four massive 20m statues of Ramses II, rivals the better-known Pyramids of Giza.
But then I have so many favourites. There’s the riverside temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to horus and Sobek, the crocodile-headed god. Its wall panels include surgeon’s instruments, a glimpse of how sophisticated ancient egyptian society must have been. There’s also what archaeologists think may be a rare depiction of the famous Cleopatra, the seventh Queen of egypt to bear that name. There are the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens on the West Bank of Luxor, some with paintwork that’s so fresh-looking it’s almost as if the artists have just laid down their brushes. Not all the tombs are open, however, and some require long walks down many steps into the rock, but once inside, you might find a huge stone sarcophagus, the final resting place of a mighty pharaoh, and feel rather glad that there is no mummy’s curse after all!
I adore Philae Temple, too, dedicated to Isis, goddess of love and sitting on a flower-filled island in the Nile, and awesome Karnak in Luxor. It’s not one temple but many, comprising a vast complex. In recent years, work has started on recreating the 2.7km sphinx-lined avenue that connected it with Luxor Temple in ancient times. Archaeologists have also just discovered an ancient bathhouse at the front of Karnak, so there’s something new to see.